Updated: Mar 28, 2019
by Laurie Christiansen
Almost twenty years ago, a young woman named Connie Hellwig attended a fundraiser for a dog walking charity in her local area. There she encountered a middle-aged physically handicapped woman with a service dog; both caught her eye. What she noticed immediately was that the woman was poorly dressed, and her dog appeared unhealthy. During their conversation, Connie realized that the woman might need some assistance in caring for her dog. Always being an animal lover, Connie had worked for the Animal Rescue League in Boston and was educated and well versed in the importance of healthy food for dogs. She approached the woman and a conversation ensued regarding the condition of her dog. Connie said, “If I gave you some premium dog food that would help your dog’s health, would you accept it?” The woman replied that she would, Connie delivered food for the woman’s dog, and Connie’s urge to do more for these dogs was ignited that day.
After that experience, the wheels were spinning, and Connie knew she could be, and wanted to be, helpful to service dogs and their owners. But she also knew she had to focus on a specific segment of the population in need. The answer came one evening when she was sitting on her deck in Newbury, MA overlooking the Great Marsh. The Great Marsh is a long, continuous salt marsh in eastern New England extending from Cape Ann in northeastern Massachusetts to the southeastern coast of New Hampshire. Off in the distance she could see an American flag atop a very high flag poll. She knew that probably only she and the owner of the flag pole would have the powerful view that she enjoyed and at that moment she thought to herself, “What gets my heart going is the Military. I could be living in some war-torn country instead of here in this beautiful place where I am safe and live in peace.” When our veterans enlisted, they were out there helping us relax here without hearing choppers overhead and she would not have this relaxing life if it were not for them.
That moment was the spark that ignited the desire and she began her research. She started by trying to find another group or organization whose mission was to help disabled veterans with the care, maintenance and protection of their service dogs. She found none, not one organization. Sparsely sprinkled were some organizations that might provide a service dog for free and the VA does write a rare prescription for a dog for a disabled veteran, but mostly the veterans need to come up with the money themselves and that cost can range anywhere from $10,000-$30,000 for the dog.
But that is only the beginning. Many veterans have never had a dog before; they have no fenced-in area for the dog; if the vet is a renter putting up a fence becomes an issue; there are the veterinarian fees; the cost of feeding the dog (given that the commercial dog food sold in super markets is not adequate to keep the dog healthy) can run to $80.00 a month. The areas of responsibility to keep the dog viable to be able to continue to help the veterans are difficult to coordinate and expensive for the disabled veteran to handle financially.
Thousands of veterans have service dogs but the need beyond that is massive. Just look at what a well-trained service dog can provide to a disabled veteran. They can help the veteran be as independent as possible, help them get up in the morning, prevent death by suicide, alert a veteran to a seizure minutes before it hits allowing the veteran to get their medication, make a phone call to someone to help, close themselves in a room until they wake up and the dog helps the vet to stand.
Finding no other organization that provided what Connie knew was absolutely necessary for a disabled veteran to be able to keep and maintain a service dog, she began the arduous process of forming a non-profit 501(c)3 herself, knowing that to understand the entire process she needed to be the one to put the documents together rather than turn it over to a lawyer. It took almost five years.
Our veterans enlisted to help keep our nation safe, do what they are told to do, put their lives on the line for our peace and safety. In great numbers they return to our country with physical wounds, amputations, and what is now being recognized as the “invisible wounds of war” including PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder) and TBI (traumatic brain injury). Living on their own upon return presents real challenges that make re-entry into civilian life a huge challenge for many.
In preparing the outline for Feed the Dog, Inc. she knew that she could provide to a disabled veteran two different mechanisms of support – transactional help for a veteran’s dog (filling a onetime request such as building a fence, getting the dog to the vet) and an ongoing relationship with the veteran where the care and feeding of the dog was a month-in/month-out relationship with the veteran and the dog, which over the lifetime of the dog is expensive.
The transactional help is a request that Connie can fulfill based on the current level of funds and funding is a constant and recurring issue. For the ongoing relational support, the annual cost to maintain a service dog is about $3,000 per year and Connie’s goal is to provide support for the life of the dog. She supports five service dogs from all over the country, from Maine to Texas. And every month she receives thank-you notes from these veterans, sincere thanks, telling how grateful they are, beautiful notes of gratitude. Part of the empowering aspect of Connie’s program for the vets is that they get to choose the food for their dogs from her list and select the Veterinarian to tend to their dog.
Funding is a challenge that never ends. On the website www.feedthedog.org there are innovative ways to donate to the Feed the Dog effort that include eBay for Charity and Amazon Smile. PayPal Giving Fund, which is the preferred mechanism, deposits 100% of the donation straight into the Feed the Dog, Inc. PayPal Account enabling support for a dog to be paid for directly through that account, for food, veterinarian services, etc. There are also Charitable Giving Tools on Facebook. Check out the “Ways to Donate” tab on the website for more information.
Following are two poignant and powerful examples of the impact of Feed the Dog, Inc. and the support it has brought to disabled veterans, without which their lives would never be as full and participatory as these service dogs enable them to be. The difference these service dogs bring to the humanity of their veterans is enough to make one weep.